Introducing the Slavery Adverts 250 Project

Today is the first day of a twelve-week project being undertaken by students in my Colonial America course at Assumption College. The Slavery Adverts 250 Project seeks to identify and republish every advertisement that offered slaves for sale or reported runaways printed in colonial newspapers exactly 250 years ago. Unlike the Adverts 250 Project, which examines one advertisement each day, the Slavery Adverts 250 Project will feature multiple advertisements on most days, drawing from every colonial newspaper that has been digitized and made available to my students via Accessible Archives, Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital Library, and Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers.

Each advertisement will appear individually via the Slavery Adverts 250 Project’s Twitter account (@SlaveAdverts250). In addition, all of the advertisements published on a given day will appear together in a single entry on the Adverts 250 Project’s blog. Individual advertisements will not be analyzed separately; instead, my students and I are creating an archive to be consulted for an essay about slavery in colonial America that will be their final exam at the end of the semester.

Each student will serve as curator of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project for one week. The curator will be responsible for identifying all relevant advertisements, posting them to the project’s Twitter account, and compiling statistics about how many advertisements were included in the project during their week. I am serving as curator during the first week, to establish the project and to troubleshoot any difficulties before turning the project over to my students.

This research project is both experimental and collaborative. I expect that I will learn just as much as my students do as we work together to gather and republish these advertisements. Throughout the project, we will ask ourselves a series of questions about what these advertisements tell us about slavery and its role in everyday life and commerce in colonial America.

  • What do these advertisements tell us about the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children?
  • What do these advertisements tell us about the experiences and attitudes of other colonists?
  • How often did advertisements featuring slaves appear in colonial newspapers?
  • Are regional differences apparent in the numbers, types, or content of advertisements featuring slaves?
  • What do these advertisements reveal that deviates from our expectations?

In the process of pursuing these questions, my students should enhance their research skills, gain experience using primary sources, and improve their information literacy. For many of them, this will also be part of a general introduction to digital humanities projects. Each student will also serve as guest curator of the Adverts 250 Project, taking on additional responsibilities that also move their coursework beyond the traditional classroom.

Reflections on Working with Guest Curators, Once Again

The semester is coming to a close and the guest curators from my Public History class have completed their responsibilities. In a series of interview questions, they each reflected on their experiences once again at the end of a second week guest curating. I would like to do the same now that the classroom project has concluded (for the moment: guest curators will return as part of future courses).

Working with my students on this collaborative project has been immensely rewarding, one of my favorite endeavors in nearly a decade of teaching. Why? There are several reasons. For one, this has been the most effect method for incorporating my own research into the classroom. In the past I’ve brought eighteenth-century advertisements to class to analyze as primary sources or assigned chapters I’ve written to supplement other readings about the confluence of commerce, culture, and politics in early America. While I will continue to do so, neither of those approaches allowed the sustained inquiry that guest curating the Adverts 250 Project for a week fostered and required.

I also believe that this was an effective method of instruction because students played such an important role in shaping the outcome. Although I did set some basic parameters (establishing a methodology for which issues of colonial newspapers should be consulted and insisting that they had to select advertisements for consumer goods and services, with only one exception each week), the guest curators chose the advertisements that interested them. This engaged their creativity, but it also gave them ownership of the work they were doing. For many assignments – in history and other disciplines – they respond to a prompt provided by a professor. They research and write about something that professor has specified they must investigate. For this project, however, they had much more freedom to choose what interested them.

One student was especially interested in women’s history. Whenever possible, she selected advertisements placed by women. That turned out to be just a starting point. As she examined those advertisements she learned a lot about the communities in which those women lived and the culture, politics, and economics that shaped their lives. The advertisements led her to a variety of primary and secondary sources that enriched her understanding of eighteenth-century America more broadly. She developed better research skills, tracking down maps, trade cards, and paintings from the period. Throughout the process, she enthusiastically learned about early America because her curiosity propelled her forward. I could have designed a series of readings and document exercises to impart similar knowledge, but the sense of discovery involved with locating and choosing which sources to consult enhanced the learning experience by giving the student both authority and responsibility for shaping her inquiry in the manner she desired and found most compelling.

The collaborative nature of this project also contributed to its success as a classroom exercise. I tell all of my students that I expect them to be junior colleagues throughout the semester, that we will investigate the past together. The extent to which students actually accept my invitation to become junior colleagues depends in part on the individual and in part on the type of class. Due to their previous experience, greater exposure to primary and secondary sources, and the projects they are expected to produce, seniors conducting their own research in the capstone seminar are much more likely to comport themselves as junior colleagues than students in introductory survey courses.

For this project, students could not avoid acting as junior colleagues, in large part because we interacted so extensively beyond the classroom. During the past semester I had more sustained contact with my Public History students than with any other students in any course I previously taught, with the exception of a student who researched and wrote a senior thesis under my direction and the possible exception of some of the best and most ambitious seniors in the research seminar. One at a time, the guest curators were immersed in the Adverts 250 Project for an entire week, which meant working closely with me.

Each student selected a slate of proposed advertisements and then met with me to have them approved. Most received my blessing, but I explained why some were rejected and gave advice for making new selections. Once an advertisement was approved, the guest curator independently conducted research on some aspect of it, though I sometimes made suggestions or provided context that I thought would be helpful. Writing a rough draft followed the research stage. Guest curators sometimes met with me in my office to review their drafts; other times we had conversations via email. Some drafts required a bit of polishing before being posted online, but others needed more extensive revisions. I made suggestions for revising prose and reorganizing material. I identified occasional historical errors, flagged incorrect assumptions, and challenged interpretations. I suggested additional sources to consult and explained why some online sources were problematic. We worked together on writing, research, and information literacy skills. Most entries went through more than one draft.

Then came another collaborative element of the project. Once a student’s entry was ready, I contributed my own “additional commentary” about the advertisement. Sometimes I expanded on the theme the guest curator had developed. Sometimes I addressed another aspect of the advertisement that interested me. In both instances I analyzed the advertisement selected by the student. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the guest curators did not always select the advertisements that I would have chosen, but each of their advertisements was significant in its own right. I believe that letting them take the lead, putting them in a position of authority in which I applied my expertise to the material they had selected, helped my students to conceive of themselves truly as junior colleagues.

There’s one more explanation for why this project was such a successful part of my Public History class: I worked with good students. Part of me fears attempting to replicate this experience in a future class with a different cohort of guest curators! As much as this method of instruction aided my students in learning and achieving their potential, it’s imperative to acknowledge that I benefitted from working with good students, each of them simultaneously smart, responsible, conscientious, and hard working. This experiment could have had a very different outcome this semester. I’m grateful that the guest curators took it seriously and, as a result, made such significant contributions to the Adverts 250 Project.

Reflections on Working with Guest Curators

Those who visit regularly are aware that I have incorporated the Adverts 250 Project into the Public History course that I am teaching this semester.

Each of the students has taken a turn serving as guest curator for a week, taking on a variety of responsibilities: creating a census of newspapers published in colonial America during the same week 250 years earlier, selecting seven advertisements to feature according to the methodology I have designed for featuring the most current advertisements, conducting independent research to gain a better understanding of each advertisement, writing a short analysis of each advertisement (at least 150 words but often much more), submitting appropriate links and images to supplement and corroborate what they have written, and consulting with me as necessary throughout the process.

I continued as editor and permanent curator. In addition to providing guidance behind the scenes, I also contributed additional commentary about some aspect of each advertisement, sometimes building on the story the guest curator told and other times examining another aspect of an advertisement. So many of the advertisements are so rich that it would be impossible for anybody – student or professor – to comment on every detail exhaustively, but working as a team the guest curators and I have explored some of the most important attributes of a variety of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements over the course of the past several weeks.

In addition to the duties listed above, each student wrote a brief reflection (at least 500 words) at the end of his or her week as guest curator. Given that my work has paralleled theirs, today I am offering my own reflection on working with the guest curators on this project.

First, I knew that this was going to be a collaborative process, but I did not anticipate just how truly collaborative it would be. I tell all of my students – whether they are enrolled in an introductory survey, an upper-level elective, or a capstone research seminar – that I expect them to be junior colleagues in the endeavor of historical enquiry. More than in any class I have taught, Public History students working on the Adverts 250 Project have comported themselves as junior colleagues who have worked collaboratively with me (though I must also tip my hat to students who have conducted original research in capstone research seminars who have also consulted with me closely to produce impressive final projects).

The manner in which we worked together very quickly took a different form than I originally envisioned. When we first decided which student would serve as guest curator for each week, I instructed them that they should submit a draft of all seven of their commentaries by the end of the day on the Wednesday before their first advertisement would be featured on the Sunday of their week. That would give me a chance to read through them and schedule a one-on-one meeting with the guest curator during office hours to go through all of them together.

That plan turned out to be too idealistic. It did not conform to the way that most undergraduates work and, quite honestly, it would have been too restrictive for me as well. The guest curators and I soon worked out a system: anything that was to be published on the Adverts 250 Project had to be submitted to me at least twenty-four hours in advance. That would give me time to review it and, if necessary, suggest revisions.

As a result, it turned out that we did not have as many face-to-face conversations about content and analysis as I expected. Instead, extended conversation in my office that I originally anticipated turned into daily email exchanges: messages shuttling back and forth. Often I was not teaching students by speaking directly to them in person. Instead, I was reading what they wrote and then they were reading my responses. Information was exchanged, context was elaborated, and details were clarified, but via email and attached documents rather than via spoken words. For me, this transformed the instructor-student relationship by incorporating some of the practices of professional communication with colleagues.

In their reflections, some of the guest curators commented explicitly that working on this project made them feel like professional historians rather than students in a generic history course (and my conversations with others revealed that all of them felt this way to one extent or another, whether they mentioned it in their reflection or not). From my perspective, this was in part due to addressing the so-called “audience of one” problem. Many assignments for history courses (and courses in just about every other discipline) have an audience of only one person who will ever see it, read it, or assess it in any way: the professor. Since those assignments feel artificial to students (a hoop to jump through to complete a college course) they often do not recognize the value of the skills the assignments were designed to develop (critical thinking, analytical writing, research methods, to name a few). Sometimes they submit work that does not correspond to their abilities, shrugging off assignments that only a professor will see.

For the Adverts 250 Project, however, students were aware from the start that I would not be the only person reading their work. They knew that the material they produced would be available on the Internet for anybody who wanted to read it. I underscored that my own reputation was on the line; while the students certainly respected that and strove to do well so they would not let me down, I believe that they also submitted their best possible work so they could be proud of their own contributions to the project. Whether they realized it or not at the time, they were also further developing the same kinds of skills that would have been emphasized in more traditional assignments.

Each student will return for a second week as guest curator after spring break. Now that each has learned more about what is involved in the project I anticipate that their experiences will be a bit different the next time around. I know that I certainly have different (and probably more realistic) expectations. Each student will offer another reflection at the end of his or her second week as guest curator.

Similarly, I will offer my own reflection once again at the end of the semester. For now, I will conclude by echoing a sentiment that many of the guest curators voiced. The Adverts 250 Project has been a lot of work, but it has also been a lot of fun. The students have reported (with sufficient enthusiasm and sincerity to dispel suspicions they were only angling for good grades) that they enjoyed working on the Adverts 250 Project. I have also very much enjoyed working with them. So far, our collaborative efforts have been fun as well as intellectually and professionally rewarding.